Nobody likes feeling stuck. And Kay Ryan's titular turtle is "often" stuck. All she asks is the freedom to move (see "Mobility Imagery" in "Symbols, Imagery, and Word Play") so she can find food. But that freedom is blocked at every turn—by geography, by predators, by chance. How can she stand it? How do you stand it when you feel stuck? For humans, freedom is mental as well as physical: even if our bodies are confined, we value the freedom to think, hope, and dream.
Eye of the tiger—er, turtle, gang. "Turtle" suggests that survival of the fittest is the dominant principle of human society as well as the animal world. Only the strong have the power to control their own lives, while the weak have little, if any, freedom.
"Turtle" suggests that people create their own prisons of low expectations. When individuals fail to exercise their imagination and freedom of choice, they surrender control over their own lives, becoming as powerless and vulnerable as a turtle on its back. No fun!
Here's a riddle for you: In "Turtle," how is Kay Ryan's turtle like Abraham Lincoln? You can make up your own response if you like, but here's one answer: They both understand the power of perseverance. "I am a slow walker," said Lincoln, "but I never walk backward." Also, "I am not concerned that you have fallen—I am concerned that you arise." What a relief those words must be for Ryan's turtle! Lincoln seems like a kindred spirit (in high places!), a friend who would understand truly what her life is all about.
The turtle's perseverance shows the power of courage and hope. Against overwhelming odds, the turtle not only manages to survive, but also finds meaning and even joy in the humble circumstances of her life. Turtle power!
Sorry, gang. The turtle perseveres because she has to survive, but her actions are more pitiful than admirable. The poem suggests that harsh circumstances can rob people of hope, making them passive and meek. Merely enduring is not really living.
Few would argue that "Turtle" is an overtly feminist poem, but some readers detect a subtle critique of traditional female roles in society. There's no getting around the fact that Kay Ryan chose to make the turtle a "she." But maybe you think it's a stretch to conclude that the poem develops themes about women and femininity. Fair enough. Still, just so you don't miss all the fun, try to keep an open mind as you follow the discussion below.
Come one, come all! Though "Turtle" has a female protagonist, the poem's central themes of freedom and confinement are equally relevant to men and women. The poem suggests that, in a competitive society, mental toughness as well as physical strength are necessary requirements for success.
Nope! Ladies only. On one level, "Turtle" can be read as an allegory of women's struggles to escape the inequities of traditional gender roles. Emotionally loaded words hint at the vulnerability of women in male-dominated society and the enormous effort required to overcome gender-based barriers.
As the opposite of arrogance, humility is arguably a positive trait (arrogant hare, humble tortoise). Although the word "humility" does not appear in "Turtle," the turtle clearly qualifies as a humble character. Words such as "modest," "patience," and "chastened" are closely related, conceptually, with the meaning of humility. Yet the poem also explores the flip side of this theme, exploring the potential drawbacks of humility. Is it possible for a person to be "too humble"? What traits does a person suppress, what opportunities does he or she sacrifice, in order to maintain a humble mindset?
It's all about getting by. The turtle's humility is an important survival skill. Realistic about her own limitations, she finds ways to work around her weaknesses and stoically takes setbacks in stride.
"Turtle" suggests that there's a fine line between humility and apathy. Like the turtle in Ryan's poem, some people become so meek and resigned that they lose all aspirations for improving their own lives. Sad.